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Despite reports of their demise, newspapers are alive - on the walls of a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The show is called the "Shock of the News," and it examines a century's worth of interaction between artists and the journals of their day.
NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg, who still subscribes to two daily printed newspapers, has the story.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Artists' responses have been aesthetic, ruminating on the beauty of print; or political, reacting to specific news events. And sometimes the responses are downright odd.
A three-foot high, three-dimensional work in one gallery looks like geometric sculpture; big, white rectangle sits on the floor, squared off at the edges. It looks solid like a piece of marble.
Oh wait, it is actual paper. You're lifting it.
JUDITH BRODIE: It is actual paper.
BRODIE: And it's by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
STAMBERG: A stack of mostly blank pages that look like newsprint, waiting to become newspapers. In the center of each sheet, a tiny, printed excerpt from The New York Times. The sheets are arranged, one on top of the other.
BRODIE: And if you feel it, it just has a wonderful - I mean if you tap it, you can hear just the sound of that much paper.
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STAMBERG: Curator Judith Brodie and I are having a grand time smacking away at this untitled 1991 work. That's fun.
BRODIE: What's very unusual about the work is that visitors to this exhibition are welcome to take one away.
STAMBERG: To take it?
BRODIE: To take it.
STAMBERG: Yes it's OK. Museum guards have been informed. Gonzalez-Torres wanted to disseminate art the way a newspaper disseminates information. The National Gallery got 9,000 sheets of big paper, so the stack can keep being replenished as visitors will walk off with pieces of art.
More conservative or greedier art lovers might prefer taking the Picasso. An early collage, the 1912 work "Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass" - you can see it at NPR.org - is the first time Picasso uses a piece of actual newspaper in a work.
BRODIE: This is revolutionary, what he's done here. Because, instead of painstakingly representing the newspaper, he uses the real thing. It's a very simple idea but it's a very big one.
STAMBERG: A fragment of the French paper Le Journal, pasted in the lower left hand corner of the piece. Picasso anatomizes the guitar, in his Cubist way; cutting up its shape so we see it from different angles, and cutting and pasting pieces of sheet music, wallpaper, a pencil drawing of a drinking glass, plus that ordinary strip of newspaper onto his canvas.
American artist Jim Hodges finds gold in newspapers, literally. He has spent much of his career making art with papers. A 2008 work called "The Good News" uses an edition published in Amman, Jordan.
BRODIE: Every single page has been gilded with 24-carat gold.
STAMBERG: Oh, how any newspaper editor would be thrilled to pieces to see this.
STAMBERG: Another Arabic paper, the Palestinian Al-Ayyam, is French artist Marine Hugonnier's medium. A week's worth of front pages from November 2004 collaged with colorful cutouts from an art book. So you see the graceful script and blocks of primary colors pasted over whatever photographs appeared in that day's paper. It's striking.
Curator Judith Brodie says artists have been attracted to newspapers for many reasons.
BRODIE: It's readily available. It's cheap. And the fact that today it's new, and then the next day it's history.
STAMBERG: Visually, the newspapers give artists because of its layout and design.
BRODIE: It has small type, large type, I call it a sort of a typographical grab bag...
STAMBERG: And with its columns and margins, it's handsome, appealing in many ways.
BRODIE: Its tactile qualities, even the sound that a newspaper makes when you're turning the pages.
STAMBERG: Brodie says in the past 10 years, more and more artists have incorporated newspapers in their work; some as homage or nostalgia or in commemoration. Over the decades, others have gone beyond design to make political statements with papers. In 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, conceptual artist Robert Morris protested Cold War politics in a piece called "Crisis Act of War: Cuba." Morris took Page One of the New York Mirror.
BRODIE: And he's just covered it in a very - I have to say - sort of haphazard fashion with gray paint.
STAMBERG: It looks like a big cloud. It's been painted, to obliterate the paper itself,
BRODIE: Yeah, right.
STAMBERG: But when you look closely, a large headline begins to emerge: We Blockade Cuba With 40 Warships.
BRODIE: By drowning the paper in gray paint, he was, in a sense, rejecting all that was going on in the political world at that time.
STAMBERG: Paul Thek, a tough-minded American artist who showed meat and human limbs in his works, goes cheerier in his 1970 acrylic painting "Untitled Diver." Thek's diver is a pink body plunging into a body of blue water. He uses newspaper as his canvas.
BRODIE: But he almost always covers the whole of the content, and you just have these sort of brown edges on the side, and that sort of ragged edge that tells us it's a newspaper. Also, newspaper, when you put paint on it, buckles. And I think that Paul Thek used this to great effect here.
STAMBERG: Oh, the paper is making waves.
BRODIE: Exactly. Exactly.
STAMBERG: It's entirely possible that 100 years from now, the only evidence that there ever were newspapers will be found in display cases at the Newseum, that's a museum of news in Washington, D.C., or on the walls and floors of art museums.
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STAMBERG: Unless - and you have until the end of January to do this - you go to the "Shock of the News" exhibition at the D.C.'s National Gallery, and walk off with a big sheet of paper from that Felix Gonzalez-Torres work, and bequeath it to your descendants.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.
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INSKEEP: Read all about it and see images at NPR.org.
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